Moonlighting: An Oral History

Book review by Deane Barker tags: television, oral-history

Moonlighting was finally streaming on Hulu, so I started binge-watching it. It was a show that aired during my teenage years, so I have vague memories of it. It was an “adult” show, and I somewhat remember my mother not approving. I saw a scattering of episodes, but never string them together.

However, as I got older, I started to realize how groundbreaking the show was, particularly around how it broke the fourth-wall and how the show acknowledged that it was a show.

I got this book when I was in the Season Three. I read the first half (up to the point where I was in the show), then paused until I finished the show to read the rest.

Here then, is what I consider the “gist,” or the gestalt that you need to understand Moonlighting. I got this both from the book, and from watching the show.

  • The show was a big breakthrough for Bruce Willis, but it was a comeback for Cybill Shepherd. Willis was a complete unknown – he was a bartender just before he got the part. Shepherd had made a name for herself in film already – she had starred in The Last Picture Show when she was 21 – but had dropped off the radar by the mid 80s.

  • The show was largely based on screwball comedies, like His Girl Friday. In fact, the dialog of the show was so fast that the show constantly ran short – sometimes they did odd cold open segments before the title credits just to burn time and get the episode long enough to air.

  • Close-up shots of Cybill Shepherd used an airbrushing filter, which is a little obvious and jarring. I naively chalked it up to Hollywood narcissism, but apparently it was an artistic choice to contrast Maddie’s sophistication and beauty against David’s down-to-Earth grittiness.

  • The show ran for five seasons, but the first season was just six episodes long. Season Two was when it really started to attract an audience, and then Season Three was when it became a national sensation.

  • The potential romance between Maddie and David was the biggest reason people tuned in. The actual story of each episode – the case that Blue Moon was investigating – was rarely that important. It often just existed to give Maddie and David a background task while they developed their relationship. Very rarely did the “case plot” provide much in the way of a plot twist.

  • Then, in the penultimate episode of Season Three, Maddie and David consummated their relationship. The show basically went downhill from there. This has become known as “The Moonlighting Curse,” meaning that if you give the viewers what they want, they’ll have no reason to tune in anymore.

  • Cybill Shepherd got pregnant with twins in real life. So the Season Four storyline had her moving home to Chicago to live with her parents while she “sorted her feelings out,” which means she and David were apart for almost all of Season Four.

  • The two stars did not like each other. They apparently fought constantly on set, often refusing to come out of their trailers until the other one did so they wouldn’t be kept waiting. Many times, the crew shot with stand-ins to keep the two stars apart. (Bruce Willis discussed this – very carefully and diplomatically – on Arsenio Hall in 1990, a year after the show was canceled.)

  • The show was plagued with production problems. Scripts were constantly late, and production was often shut down because the crew ran out of pages to shoot. The show actually poked fun at itself for constantly airing re-runs because the writers couldn’t complete a new show. They never completed a full, 22-episode season. The last season was just 13 episodes.

  • Every season had a “DiPesto Episode” where the focus was on the receptionist, Agnes DiPesto. In Season Three, they brought on Bert Viola as her romantic interest so they could focus more on that couple when the drama around Bruce and Cybil slowed the show down.

  • The show became known for “stunt episodes” which broke the mold of a traditional one-hour drama. The most famous were Atomic Shakespeare which was a period re-enactment of The Taming of the Shrew and The Dream Sequence Always Rings Twice which was a black-and-white retelling of a murder from the 1940s with Maddie and David showing the story from their perspective.

  • In addition to entire episodes, there were often “stunt sequences,” like when David does an entire musical Broadway number while on a prison chain gang, or an extended dance fantasy sequence set to a Billy Joel song.

  • The show often broke the fourth wall and acknowledged it was a television show (though, oddly, the stars still referred to themselves as “Maddie” and “David,” not “Cybill” and “Bruce”). I was looking for the first time they were self-referential, and I think it was somewhere in Season 2, when David was explaining how a murder occurred. Maddie asked, “When did you figure this out, David?” He looked at the camera and responded, “During the commercial.”

  • Later in Season Two, there were two significant fourth-wall breaks. The Christmas episode ended with snow falling inside the Blue Moon offices, and Maddie and David walk off the set to see the entire crew and their families singing a Christmas carol (it was the staff Christmas party in real life). Then, in the Season Two finale, they chase the antagonist off a set and onto the studio backlot then back onto the set. The crew starts dismantling the set around them because the season is over, and the antagonist complains that he doesn’t know how his life ends, and so David explains his character’s (hypothetical) story post-show.

  • Before the final season, Bruce Willis shot Die Hard and his career took off. In fact, in one scene during one the the final episodes, a Die Hard poster appears in a store window behind David.

  • Ratings declined after Season Three until the show was finally canceled. In true Moonlighting form, the cancellation was written into the show. David returns to the Blue Moon offices to find them being emptied out because the show was canceled. He and Maddie go to see a studio executive who explains that people stopped watching when they got together. The show (and series) ends with some flashbacks.

The book is truly an oral history – it’s mostly just quotes from people involved in the series. There’s some narrative set-up, but it’s clearly formed from a long, long series of interviews.

The author got interviews with everyone, except Bruce Willis. The author notes that “his schedule just didn’t work out.” However, the book was published in 2021, and Willis was clearly suffering from dementia by that time (this wouldn’t be announced until 2022).

But besides Willis, almost everyone is there: Cybill Shepherd (Maddie), Allyce Beasley (Agnes), Curtis Armstrong (Bert), and lots of one-off and limited arc characters (except Mark Harmon, unfortunately). Also, there are contributions from the show’s creator, every director, every writer, etc.

The book has some great secret reveals about various scenes. For example, the scene when David and Sam are fighting in the parking garage was complicated because Willis had a separated shoulder, and none of the stars were together on set at the same time. They pieced the entire sequence together from separate shots using over-the-shoulder camera work and stand-ins.

Additionally, when Maddie and David “lay down” in bed during the famous sex scene, they were actually standing upright, leaning against a sheet hanging over plywood. She was pregnant at the time, and – as noted above – he had a injured shoulder, so they adapted.

Also of note, Allyce Beasley seems quite bitter that the show ended. She’s clearly angry at the two stars for not getting along and causing problems. Oddly, when David and Maddie are heading across the lot to talk to the studio executive at the end of the last episode, they run into Agnes who berates them for not getting along and “ruining everything.” Thirty years later, she’s apparently still upset.

The book is great. I recommend reading it while you’re watching the show. There are so many stories that it’s helpful to correlate them against what you’re watching.

Book Info

Scott Ryan
  • I have read this book. According to my records, I completed it on .
  • A softcover copy of this book is currently in my home library.

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